Canada Student Service Grant: Some Answers- Finally!
On April 22, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) as part of the Canadian government's COVID-19 response focused on supporting youth. I had lots of questions related to this announcement. Those were echoed when I spoke with over 50 members of VMPC (Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada) on May 1. VMPC members also expressed concerns including:
Why is this grant limited to summer volunteering opportunities? What if my organization's peak needs happen in winter? (e.g. a winter sports organization)
Due to COVID-19, it has become more difficult for volunteers to complete police checks for roles that require them. How can we screen and onboard volunteers appropriately in the limited timeframe of "summer"?
Why hasn't the government communicated any information to Volunteer Canada or my organization about how to deploy opportunities eligible for this grant?
Why is the government creating a new opportunities search database when so many volunteer centres across the country already have years of experience with this?
On June 4, the Toronto Star published an article asking why the program still hadn't launched. Volunteer Toronto, Canada's largest volunteer centre, had been fielding many questions about the CSSG and was actively engaging the federal government for more information. The Canadian Federation of Students, which represents post-secondary student unions across Canada, was also waiting on answers. Their spokesperson said, "There is definitely concern that the summer is slipping away.”
I finally received some more information and a few answers yesterday (June 24) through an email from Volunteer Toronto. Today's news release from the Prime Minister's office confirms that the CSSG has officially launched. Information from news media and Twitter has come fast and furious today, after a long drought. Just look at these tweets!
What I like about the CSSG:
1) There is some room for students to count their hours from volunteering with Grassroots Groups (i.e. organizations that are not registered non-profits or charities). However, this is only in cases where the Grassroots Group has received a Canada Service Corps micro-grant, meaning that among other criteria, the "project must be led and created by youth (ages 15 to 30)."
2) Students applying to CSSG can simultaneously receive the Canada Emergency Student Benefit.
3) The "I Want to Help" platform is fairly easy to navigate. The application process for student volunteer candidates seems straightforward. The registration and posting process for organizations that want to recruit volunteers also seems uncomplicated.
4) A wide variety of volunteer opportunities are eligible, despite my initial concern given that the Prime Minister said the program was for "students helping in the fight against COVID-19". In a quick search, I have found postings for youth mentors, exercise content producers, and animal behavior researchers.
Where I feel the CSSG falls short:
1) Students must complete eligible volunteer hours by October 31, limiting the time available for screening, orientation, and training, as well as opportunities for students to build meaningful relationships and receive continuous feedback.
High-quality volunteer engagement involves strategic planning, risk management, and relationship management. These actions cannot be rushed! In my experience, the screening process itself takes up to 6 weeks. The time and effort that goes into screening mean that the fit between the volunteer, the role, and the organization is likely to be a good one, ensuring a positive experience for all parties.
2) I wish the CSSG was available for one year instead of just until October 31. Why? The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for many months, and the trends of micro-volunteering and flexible volunteering opportunities are popular among youth (the grant's target demographic) who have varied interests and lead busy lives. A full-year of availability would enable non-profits to engage student volunteers when they need the support, instead of on an arbitrary timeline.
Over the years, I have seen a (rightful) reluctance from non-profit colleagues to "make work" for volunteers, just so they could finish a required number of hours. For students who want to take full advantage and be eligible for the full $5,000 grant, "make work" may be making an unwelcome return. For non-profit employees who are already navigating complex changes at work, and dealing with the loss of funding and colleagues' jobs, this is unnecessary stress rooted in the intention of improving organizational support.
3) Only students under 30 years of age are eligible to apply. This restriction wrongfully assumes that mature students who have an interest in volunteering don't need the money. This is simply untrue, ageist, and neglects the unique value that mature students can bring to non-profits.
As Chip Conley says, "It’s time to liberate “elder” from “elder-ly.”" We need to stop stereotyping older volunteers as "envelope stuffers" seeking social time. Throughout my career, I've had the privilege and pleasure of working with older volunteers who have shared decades of HR expertise, transformed processes with their project management skills, and offered true wisdom in multiple areas.
4) Hours don't equal impact. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Counting hours to measure impact is unfair to students who are very talented and efficient at their work, have excellent time management skills, and learn new tasks quickly. This punishes them for performing with excellence- something I'm sure employers are looking for.
What's worse is that "the Grant is only offered in increments of $1,000 for every hundred volunteer hours completed". This means that a volunteer who is super engaged with an organization or project will have less incentive to continue volunteering if they don't believe they can complete another 100 hours in the remaining time.
For non-profits, this is a tragedy. Erin Spink, a volunteer engagement professional I look up to immensely, says that "volunteering is a gateway drug". Positive volunteer experiences mean that the volunteer is likely to refer their friends and family, become more engaged with advocacy and civic life, and become donors. By only rewarding specific increments, the gates to increased engagement close. It's really too bad because Canadian non-profits need more support now than ever before.
The delay in the CSSG's deployment is frustrating for leaders of volunteers and the non-profits they work for. The timelines and administration of the grant are unfair to students and the non-profits they want to help. To close, I'll say that "I Want to Help" is well-intentioned but not enough. There is a gap between wanting to help, and helping meaningfully in a way that is inclusive, equitable, and genuinely serves our society and the non-profits who want to improve it.
Are you a student applying to the CSSG? Are you a leader of volunteers who has registered to recruit student volunteers through this program? I want to hear about your experiences! Write a comment or send me a note!